Bill Ackman is that guy at a basketball game who keeps chanting after everyone else stopped.
Ackman is crowing over the fact that his nemesis Carl Icahn almost sold part of Icahn Enterprise’s 18% stake in Herbalife to a consortium of buyers including himself, as revealed by the WSJ.
His exuberance shows he’s missing a very important but simple point: For everyone but Bill Ackman, the long national nightmare that was his Herbalife crusade is over. It’s especially over for Icahn, because to beat Ackman, his longtime frenemy, Icahn doesn’t need to see the stock thrive, it just has to survive.
And it looks like that is exactly what will happen.
In May, the Federal Trade Commission ordered Herbalife to pay a fine for abusive practices. It stopped short, though, of accusing the company of being a pyramid scheme. Since 2013, Ackman has insisted that the firm is in fact a pyramid scheme, and that he will short the company to zero.
Ackman maintains that the changes that Herbalife has to make to its business will eventually bring it down. In the meantime, though, Icahn is still holding his shares.
To zero and beyond
Almost immediately after the WSJ story hit The Street, though, Ackman went onto CNBC to talk about how Icahn’s attempt to sell is a sign that he no longer has conviction in the controversial stock, and that he’s made all the money he needs to make.
“Look, I think he knows the company is toast,” said Ackman.
Ehhh maybe. But the reality is that Icahn has rarely been a huge cheerleader for the stock. In fact, he’s actually refused to talk about it in interviews. What he was always interested in was the trade and the fact that Ackman was on the other side of it.
Let’s go back to the epic interview that catapulted this feud to fame, that fateful day in January 2013 when Icahn and Ackman appeared on CNBC at the same time and literally let each other have it.
Ackman was ready to talk about the merits of his short position, and his thesis about Herbalife’s business.
Icahn was ready to talk about Ackman.
“Listen, you know, I’ve really sort of had it with this guy Ackman, you know,” Icahn told CNBC.
What follows will be forever recorded in the annals of Wall Street history. Icahn called Ackman a cry baby, and said that Ackman reminded him of the little Jewish boys he’d beat up in the school yard during his rough and tumble childhood in Queens.
However, when it came to talking about Herbalife, people often forget that Icahn had absolutely nothing to say.
“Listen to me… I want to say what I want to say and I’m not going to talk about my Herbalife position because you want to bully me…I don’t give a damn about what you want to know,” Icahn shouted at CNBC host Scott Wapner.
“I want to talk about what I want to talk about…You can say what the hell you want. I’m going to talk about what Ackman just said about me, not about Herbalife… I’ll talk about Herbalife when I goddamn want to…I’m never going on a show with you again, that’s for damn sure, OK.” Icahn continued.
Why long? Why not?
So after all of this, after years of calling Ackman’s trade “disingenuous;” after Icahn told Trish Regan at Bloomberg in 2013 that if Ackman wanted to badmouth a stock publicly he should “join the SEC” (shudder); after the two men called a truce on national television, only for Icahn to buy Herbalife stock again — Icahn finally said a few nice, banal things about the company.
Well, at least maybe a couple times.
Even just before the FTC ruling, Icahn’s discussion of Herbalife centered around Ackman. The nicest thing he could say about Herbalife was that it creates jobs for people which — yeah, duh.
“Ackman is completely and totally wrong on this company,” he said. “You know, Ackman is a smart guy and all, but he is just dead wrong. This company creates work for a lot of people. And to say it doesn’t is ridiculous.”
For Ackman to believe in Icahn’s conviction is like you, dear reader, asking your girlfriend or wife what she wants for Valentine’s Day and actually believing her when she says “oh, nothing.”
Naturally we’re not the only people who think this way. The entire market has been watching these two men duke it out for years. That may be why Herbalife’s stock is down only 3% on the news that its biggest shareholders considered selling.
You see to Icahn, the Herbalife trade is over, because it looks like he won and Ackman lost. Icahn has moved on.
We reached out to Icahn Enterprises for comment on this story but we have yet to hear back. Maybe it’s August, maybe they just have more interesting things to do.
This is an editorial. The opinions and conclusions expressed above are those of the author.